As the world's center of economic gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it's moved from a region of enduring peace to one of pervasive friction. Last spring, China and the Philippines nearly came to blows over a small shoal in the South China Sea. In mid-December, Japan dispatched eight fighter planes after a small Chinese plane entered Japanese airspace, near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. North Korea tested another missile in mid-December, and appears to be preparing for a third nuclear test. Peace between India and Pakistan remains elusive, while Indonesia and the Philippines continue to wrestle with Islamic terrorism.
But there are quieter threats to Asia, potentially more explosive than a North Korean missile. Here are four underappreciated threats to the world's most populous region:
Since President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, Taipei and Beijing have improved ties and deepened their economic integration: cross-strait trade reached $127.6 billion in 2011, an increase of more than 13 percent from 2010. Some national security experts misinterpret this trend, thinking that growing economic interdependence will overwhelm factors pushing the two sides apart, and that interdependence will provide Beijing with leverage it can use to compel unification. But while Taiwan's businesspeople enjoy closer ties with China, the average Taiwanese voter continues to move toward independence. Over the last 20 years, the portion of citizens of Taiwan identifying as "Taiwanese" has increased from 17.6 percent of those polled in 1992 to a whopping 53.7 percent today; those identifying as "Chinese" has declined over the same period from 25.5 percent to just 3.1 percent today. Support for independence has nearly doubled over the last two decades, from 11.1 percent to 19.6 percent. Support for immediate or eventual unification, meanwhile, has more than halved, from 20 percent in 1992 to 9.8 percent in 2012.
Economic integration is apparently failing to halt what Beijing sees as a troubling trend. With a cross-strait trade agreement and a slew of other, easier deals already on the books, Beijing now expects Ma to discuss political issues. But Ma doesn't have the domestic political support to pursue political talks -- in March 2012, two months after his reelection, 45 percent of those polled said the pace of cross-strait exchanges was "just right," but the share of respondents answering "too fast" had increased to 32.6 percent, from 25.7 percent before the election. Any Chinese shift toward a more strident Taiwan policy could portend a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait sooner than many expect, as a lack of progress on these issues may buttress hawks in the new Xi Jinping administration. And America would surely be dragged in: Even low-level coercive measures against Taiwan -- a top 10 U.S. trading partner and security ally -- could throw U.S.-China relations into a tailspin.
Jihadists Attack China
China has managed simmering unrest in its Western region of
Xinjiang for decades, including a major riot in July 2009 that left nearly 200
dead. Beijing has long repressed Xinjiang's roughly 20 million Muslims, most of
whom belong to the Uyghur minority, denying them the right to freely practice
Islam and citing
counterterrorism as an excuse for silencing dissent. In the summer of 2011,
authorities even outlawed
fasting for Ramadan. So far, China doesn't seem to be a preferred target
for al Qaeda and other jihadi organizations. Its internal policing -- Beijing
spends more on domestic security than on defense -- also makes it a hard
But as China extends its economic and military reach around the world, while continuing to repress its sizable Muslim minority, the likelihood of it being the victim of a major terrorist attack increases exponentially. While al Qaeda views the United States as its primary antagonist, it bears ill will toward China as well. According to the Jerusalem Post's translation of a November statement attributed to current al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri, China is one of "five arrogant powers ... who impose their will on the rest of the world's peoples" through the United Nations Security Council. Zawahiri excoriated the U.N. for its acquiescence in allowing non-Muslim countries to seize Muslim territories, including China's takeover of "Eastern Turkistan," the name by which Xinjiang separatists refer to their territory. Washington's longtime support for the Saudi royal family has provided terrorists with at least a rhetorical rationale for attacking the United States. Beijing's decision to pull closer to Riyadh -- driven by a desire for more flexibility in China's relationship with Iran -- will not win it any plaudits from al Qaeda.
Another risk factor for China is Africa, which, aggregated together, will likely replace the European Union as the country's largest trading partner within five years. Working conditions at Chinese-owned interests in Zambia, for example, are notoriously bad. At a copper mine in 2010, two Chinese managers fired shotguns into a crowd of workers protesting over poor pay and conditions, wounding 11. Some miners in Chinese-run operations in that country must work for two years before they are provided with safety helmets.
China, with its massive business interests in Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Sudan (all unstable nations host to large Muslim populations) -- and with a sustained naval anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia -- might increasingly find itself the recipient of violence that has thus far been directed elsewhere. Attacks like the April 2007 raid of a Chinese oil concern in Ethiopia by Somali separatists, which killed 74 Africans and nine Chinese workers, could become much more common.